US federal judge invalidates oil and gas sale over environmental impact
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US federal judge invalidates oil and gas sale over environmental impact

A judge on the US District Court for the District of Columbia Thursday invalidated an oil and gas lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico, finding that the Biden administration failed to properly account for the auction’s environmental impact. 

In 2017, Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program issued a five-year plan which proposed ten region-wide lease sales. One of those lease sales was Lease Sale 257, a lease for 80.8 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in United States history.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act, federal agencies, specifically the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Department of the Interior, must review all oil and gas leases to determine the environmental impact of lease. During the final days of the Trump administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Department of the Interior concluded that Lease Sale 257 sufficiently complied with federal law on its environmental impact and the lease should occur.

However, just a few days into taking office, President Biden issued Executive Order 14008, which paused new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration. This decision temporary blocked Lease Sale 257 from going into effect.

Louisiana, along with a coalition of states, challenged Executive order 14008 in the Western District of Louisiana, and the court preliminarily enjoined Interior officials from “implementing the pause of new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters.” Thus, in August 2021, Lease Sale 257 moved forward.

Immediately after the decision to move forward with Lease Sale 257 was made, Plaintiffs Friends of the Earth, Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity brought suit against the Secretary of the US Department of the Interior, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, alleging that the federal defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

On Thursday, US District Judge Rudolph Contreras agreed with the plaintiffs. According to the judge, the Interior Department acted “arbitrarily and capriciously in excluding foreign consumption from their greenhouse gas emissions,” and the “error was indeed a serious failing.” 

The decision is not the first time a court has cited faulty environmental analyses in blocking oil and gas development on federal lands. In August 2021, a federal judge reversed the government’s approval of a $6 billion ConocoPhillips development in Alaska, a decision that was cited in Judge Contreras’ ruling.